Thursday, October 04, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [12]



Civil Relgion in a Communist Country

Every successful nation-state needs a "civil religion" of some kind; some shared belief to which the people can give loyalty. Holding a nation together by force alone is ultimately futile.

These civil religions involve founding myths, cults around "founding fathers" and other national heroes, a sense of national mission ("exceptionalism", as Perica puts it), and various patriotic ceremonies, rituals, commemorations, memorials, and--in Yugoslavia especially--sports.

In Communist Yugoslavia, the civil religion was built on the creed of "Brotherhood and Unity," which was founded on various national myths including the Partisan resistance of WWII, the break with Stalin in 1948, the unity and harmony between all the national groups making up Yugoslavia, the cult of Tito, the leadership of the non-aligned nations movement and the form of "self-management" socialism that Yugoslavia pursued, and finally the important role assigned to sport in Yugoslav ideology.

The Myth of the Nation's Origin: Yugoslav Victories over Hitler and Stalin

The Partisan anti-fascist struggle was by far the most successful and broad-based liberation movement in all of Europe during WWII. Although Allied aid cannot be discounted, the Yugoslavs could justifiably take pride that they had, by and large, freed themselves from the Nazis and their domestic allies (most notably the NDH and, later, the Chetniks). The liberation struggle was both costly and popular--casualty rates were high, especially for Party member who were expected to take leadership roles and risk in combat; at the same time the Partisan forces grew in size until what began as a guerrilla movement ended up fielding large armies and even a proper air force and navy. The heroism of the war went beyond the ideologically committed cadres--this was truly a People's War, with members of Yugoslavia's many minorities well-represented.

This war became the founding myth, commemorated with countless "people's heroes" and battlefield commemorations, etc. Ultimately, Tito's break with Stalin--and his ability to hold power against the attempted Stalinist purge from within--can be explained at least partially because Tito's appeal was to nationalism rather than class identity. Stalin himself understood this, but failed to rein Tito in.

Self-Management and Nonalignment

The shift from Stalinist-style communism and the creation of "self-managed" socialism--which borrowed as much, if not more, from 19th Century socialism than from orthodox Marxism--was a source of genuine pride and self-identity for Yugoslavs. As was Tito's leadership role in what became known as the organization of non-aligned countries.

The Myth of Brotherhood and Unity

The ideal of "Brotherhood and Unity" was premised on the idea that ethnic strife (most notably Greater Serbia ideology) was a threat to the peace and stability of Yugoslavia, and it was up to the party to dampen and eventually exterminate such passions. The official ideology did not seek to create a new, "Yugoslav" nationality, but rather to encourage and promote tolerance and mutual acceptance among the countries various national groups.

This civil religion was no mere figment of Tito's imagination; at least some observers have argued that the country was not held together primarily by force. And when the option of selecting "Yugoslav" as an ethnic label was offered, it became increasingly popular over the years (particularly in Bosnia). Studies showed that self-described Yugoslavs were less religious than other citizens, and more hostile to the various national churches. At the same time, they were more likely to participate in civic and official patriotic events. They're "Yugoslavism" was genuine and deep-seated.

The Tito Cult

Tito was a larger-than-life figure to Yugoslavs, and much revolutionary sentiment was directly tied to him. The Tito cult died hard; in the late 1980s, as the League of Communists lost powerful to the republics, loyalty to Tito's and his legacy remained strong.

A Patriotic Ritual: Tito's Relay

Although Tito later decreed that this annual celebration of his birthday be renamed the "Youth Relay" as a way of underscoring the nation's youth and vitality, it never lost the strong connection to personally commemorating the leader. The relay passed through all the republics, and the baton--containing a birthday message to Tito--was carried by young representatives of different Yugoslav nationalities.

The Myth of the Yugoslav Synergy: Was There a Secret Link?

In this final section, Perica briefly discusses some of the arguments against the legitimacy of Yugoslavia' civil religion. The anti-communists and nationalists, he argues, faced the burden imposed by the fact that "Brotherhood and Unity," in many ways, was a success. Nationalists had to turn to a sense of martyrdom, the notion that their respective national group had been subverted, oppressed, and betrayed in the trap of nations that made up Yugoslavia.

Perica concludes the chapter with the heartfelt claim that Yugoslavia, and the creed of brotherhood and unity, could have outlived not only Tito's death but even the end of communism. There was nothing in the creed incompatible with democracy, and the Tito cult could have lived on as a unifying national myth of tolerance. But he concludes this hopeful tone with a more somber note--this myth alone was not enough. Yugoslavia needed to have begun democratization much earlier.

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